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By a Song

 

by Bob Cowser Jr.

Memory, like the organ, is an instrument capable of infusing the most secular music with spiritual sounds.

-- James McConkey

When I was in the first grade, my favorite song was John Denverís "Rocky Mountain High." I was a little confused when I heard it -- figurative language still eluded me. How could a boy be born in his twenty-seventh year? How could he be hanging by a song? But I didnít like the song any less for not knowing. I scratched the LP playing that same cut over and over. I tried to memorize the words and at bedtime I sang into my pillow as much as I could remember.

I know it isn't cool to like John Denver anymore, and perhaps never was, but in the way that every younger child is hostage to the musical taste of the older sibling in the house, I was hostage to my older sister Maryís record collection. Mary, the oldest of my parentsí four children, was the only child responsible enough to collect records, the only one with any real knowledge of the world beyond our house and yard, so the music in her wire record rack became ours for better or worse.

After a nightly bath, Mary, my other sister Ruth, and I would slip our wet heads through the collars of our nightclothes and kneel in front of my motherís rocking chair. Mom would part my hair with a comb then pull a brush through my sistersí tangled manes. The girls teetered a bit under her gentle tugs, shifting from knee to knee as my mother brushed. Then the three of us made our way to the living room and placed ourselves on the floor in front of an old sea chest, on top of which my parents had placed the turntable. My sisters sat cross-legged in matching polyester nightgowns, threadbare at the knees. I remember the bottoms of our feet were still pink from the warm bath water.

Of all that we listened to, I liked the folky Denver best. Hearing "Rocky Mountain High" and songs like it made me feel warm. This was what I called love when I was a boy, this warm feeling, and while the song was playing I felt it for my sisters there assembled, for my mother in the next room in front of the t.v., for my father and my baby brother Jimmy already in bed. I felt it for the pretty ladies I knew, like my teacher Miss Webb, Mrs. Fannen from our church, Olivia Newton-John.

We speak of our waking dreams in terms of what is to come, the future, but surely we can dream about the past too. I suspect thatís all memory is, a dream we dream about the way things were, no more true and no less fantastical than other kinds of dreams. True or not, it can be a kind of salvation.

The night John Denver crashed his glider Icharus-like into the Pacific, I was driving from my home in Nebraska to where my younger sister Ruth lives in Missouri. My wife had filed for divorce the month before, and I was seeking the solace of family. It was 1997, my own twenty-seventh year.

I heard the news of Denverís death on a Kansas City radio station. I pulled off the interstate to find a record store and bought a John Denver cassette, the same album my sister had owned. His greatest hits. On the cover, Denver sits amid tall mountain grass, wearing a blue down vest and grinning broadly.

I had not heard "Rocky Mountain High" in a long time. I played it on the tape deck as soon as my little black car was back on the highway. There in the car, I felt the warm feeling again, simple as ever, though by that time I understood how a boy might be born again at such an age, and hoped it would happen to me. And I knew how a song could tether you to the things you love in this world: the gentle strokes of a hair brush, warm bath water, your little sister just a few miles further down the road.


Bob Cowser Jr. is assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing track at St. Lawrence University.  His work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Sonora Review, Sycamore Review, American Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review and elsewhere.  He lives on the Grasse River in northern New York state with his wife and two sons, Jake and Jackson.

 

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